Here at CitizenLab, we love to celebrate the successes of our clients. With so many incredible community development and engagement projects taking place on our platform across the world, we hope to record some best practices and share them with local governments to encourage peer learning and inspiration.
Oftentimes, we take a comprehensive look at well-established platforms with long histories of success. But, newly launched platforms also have a lot to teach us about succeeding during the crucial first step in the process: platform set-up and launch. As the first part of getting every successful online community engagement platform, we want to highlight how one city built a strong foundation and brand around its platform to generate buzz about its launch.
Launched on October 6th, 2022, the City of Norwich, Connecticut’s community engagement platform Envision Norwich (06)360 (a playful reference to Norwich’s zip code and the 360 engagement they seek to do on the platform) is looking to spark widespread interest and feedback on city-wide projects. As a collaboration between the City and the local Norwich Community Development Corporation (NCDC), this platform is serving as an extension of the hard work organizations from all sectors are doing to improve the community.
Kicking off with projects from gathering input on their new Plan of Conservation & Development to the renovation of the Marina, Norwich is starting the conversation strong with clear goals and a range of topics that will appeal to a wide variety of residents.
Bringing community engagement, and efficiency, online in Norwich
The idea for Envision 06360 stemmed from impending state grant funding applications and engagement requirements in new city policies. Knowing that engagement would be required, the team began looking for solutions to make the process more inclusive of the community and more efficient for their team. That’s where our online community engagement platform comes in. They knew that an online platform would allow the team to achieve a level of reach in the community that they simply wouldn’t have time to do otherwise.
Community engagement platform Envision 06360 comes to life
Before deciding on an online engagement platform partner, the team started developing the brand for their new platform and process. A new website opened the opportunity for a new brand, which would be a departure from their standard City website. The Norwich team wanted to be as deliberate as possible before going public and wanted to find a way to infuse energy and positivity into their efforts to promote long-term engagement in the community.
By proactively building a brand for the platform, including a logo, a color scheme, and key messaging points, the cross-departmental team has been able to be concise and cohesive in their communications to both internal stakeholders and the community. This has immediately allowed them to develop recognition for this new concept and promoted collaboration, which has lowered the knowledge barrier to entry (fewer people asking, but what is this anyway?) and fostered initial positive associations with the platform.
Not only did this approach build a core foundation for their future engagement, but it was also a fun and team-bonding project for the collaborative Norwich team. It allowed them to make sure everyone was on the same page and then to get creative with what they wanted Envision Norwich to look like (both literally and strategically). With multiple departments and their non-profit wing overseeing the project, the brand development exercise promoted internal buy-in and continued to ensure long-term support.
Developing a widespread communications approach to community engagement
Now that the platform has been launched, the team went to work on communicating with the community. Without a dedicated communications team member in the municipality, they had to put their heads together and get creative. Recognizing that the concept of a community engagement platform would be new to most residents, they asked themselves; what resources, places, and assets are already available in the community to reach more residents and ultimately amplify the message of community engagement. Additionally, they looked at what could be achieved with each communication channel.
To start, they leveraged their existing online channels, such as Facebook, to present the new platform with a simple click. While Facebook often sees more passive engagement from residents (posting feedback in an ad hoc, and oft negative, manner), it is still a mechanism for connecting with already engaged residents. The goal of this channel was to introduce a more comprehensive and positive view of activities and changes in the community to promote positive feedback that is conducive to productive change.
The team also spoke on the local talk radio station, which has a small, but captive audience. They promoted the platform and the work being done on it and received an immediate response with new people signing up for the platform. People that listen to local radio often are in an older demographic, and they might not be as familiar with social media channels. Hence, it was important to find ways to reach them where they are, on channels they are comfortable with and responsive to.
Having caught the local press’s attention with their efforts, they garnered very positive initial coverage of the city’s efforts. Local writer Bill Kenny first caught wind of the initiative in the ramp-up to the town meeting that announced the platform and wrote an insightful article in The Bulletin on what it would mean for the residents. The local publication The Day also released an article around the platform’s launch that helped to generate buzz and excitement in the community.
Finally, the Norwich team developed a hybrid approach to engagement that includes in-person community meetings. Continuing these will ensure they are reaching the population from all angles, as well as having the opportunity to promote the platform to an engaged audience with the ability to address any concerns they may have.
“We have to meet people where they are. We have to invite them in and actively work with them to show even our most vocal critics the benefit of an online platform. The overarching feedback I receive from these meetings is that people want more projects. They want to see everything we have going on.”Mary Riley, Community Manager
People are attentive and ready to engage. An asynchronous online engagement process has already fueled productive and successful engagement in Norwich. Norwich’s overall communications plan shows the value of going across channels to meet people where they are with a two-pronged goal: drive platform registrations and demonstrate platform value.
With the platform underway, what does the team see as its biggest initial successes?
Improving external community and internal communications
Previously, the city relied on traditional engagement methods such as in-person meetings and direct connections to get input, but it hadn’t succeeded in connecting with a large, diverse portion of the population. And any engagement or feedback received via social media or community events tended to be more passive and unfocused. As a result, local officials wanted a consolidated place to document and respond to all feedback, on both the public-facing and internal communications. As Kevin Brown (Director of NCDC) put it:
“This platform is creating a more synchronized approach to the whole team and multiple departments communicating with the population to ensure that the things they are doing are aligned.”
The platform is fostering a strong community of people (almost 200 already) who want to be involved in the conversation and is creating a continuous and productive dialogue between residents. Envision Norwich 06360 will serve as the consolidated, go-to location for community engagement on city-wide projects for years to come.
By continuously developing new methods to reach their community, such as leveraging QR codes to drive sign-ups and building engagement projects in multiple languages, the Norwich team is well on its way to inclusive and responsive community engagement. Soon enough, they hope to have reached all 40,000 of their residents on projects for years to come.